FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has had his new team on the field for 12 practices this spring.
With one week to go before the spring-ending Red-White Game, Bielema said there’s one group that has made the most important strides: Arkansas’ offensive line.
“Huge improvement,” Bielema said. “If there’s a group from when we started to where we are that had to change the most and have done that, it’s been the offensive line.”
Arkansas wrapped up its fourth week of drills with a practice in Razorback Stadium on Saturday. The practice schedule was different from the past two weeks, when Arkansas wrapped up weeks with lengthy scrimmages on Saturdays. The Razorbacks instead spent most of the time running through a regular practice.
It still was more valuable time spent on the field for an offensive line that is being asked to serve as the catalyst of a new-look offense next season. The Razorbacks want to build around a power run game and are placing the emphasis on a group that spent much of its time in pass protection under the previous staff.
The spring hasn’t produced a dominant line. In fact, Arkansas’ defensive front may have won the battle during a 14-play red zone and goal line session Saturday. But center Travis Swanson believes the steady steps have been apparent.
“As a line I feel we’re a lot better than when we first started spring ball,” Swanson said last Tuesday. “Coming into this, we knew what the technique would be. We never essentially practiced it like we are now. So if you work at something for days at a time you’re going to be better now than when you first started it. It’s a good process. Hopefully by the spring game we’ll be better than what we are now.”
Arkansas used a first-team group most of the spring has consisted of center Travis Swanson, left tackle David Hurd, right guard Brey Cook, left guard Mitch Smothers and right tackle Grady Ollison. Hurd didn’t practice Saturday because of a sprained MCL in his knee and appendicitis, leaving Austin Beck to work in his place.
The second-team line consisted of left tackle Marcus Danenhauer, left guard Johnathan McClure, center Luke Charpentier, right guard Cordale Boyd and right tackle Chris Stringer, who is dealing with a minor hip injury.
Bielema said the group’s overall growth into a unit built around its ability to get push off the line of scrimmage for the run game has been impressive.
“They went from a system that was hurry up and play, get as many reps as you can, lot of 3-step game, just different things offensively than we’re asking them to do,” Bielema said. “They’ve kind of bought into their manhood a little bit.”
It’s not the only area of growth this spring. Bielema also compliment the play of his wide receivers after turning in their best performance of the spring in less-than-ideal weather Saturday. Bielema and defensive coordinator Chris Ash pointed to his this week, crediting them for their improved execution as well.
“The linebacking corps, I can’t say enough about the improvement they’ve made, especially the last three practices,” Ash said last Thursday. “All of them. But Braylon Mitchell is probably the most improved player on the defensive unit so far.”
There’s a long way to go for a team trying to reinvent itself after the disappointing 4-8 season in 2012. But Bielema said the Razorbacks have managed to accomplish what he was looking for through his first spring with the program.
“All I want to do is get better every day,” Bielema said. “That’s the only way I know how to get to where I want to be is just get better every day and our kids have done that. There’s going to be a day or two where maybe a certain side of the ball may be needed to be a little bit further along than where they were.
“But from where we in practice 1 now through practice 12, I couldn’t be happier and more excited about what these three practices can bring.”
And one big reason for his excitement comes from the progress of his offensive line.
He’s confident the group will continue to grow next week and into the summer.
“I think they’ll not only have the biggest jump right now in spring ball, I think they’ll have the biggest jump in the summer, which leads to the fall as well,” Bielema said.